Alexis Vila won a bronze medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics. | Photo: Jeff Sherwood
The signing of bantamweight Alexis Vila, an undefeated fighter with an Olympic bronze medal to his name, could have met with more fanfare. However, at age 40, the two-time freestyle wrestling world champion finds himself in a unique position: still young in his mixed martial arts career but one of the oldest fighters on the Bellator Fighting Championships roster.
Even at his advanced age, Vila possesses a pedigree few in the sport can match. In 1996, the Cuban-born fighter won the bronze medal in freestyle wrestling at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Other accomplishments in the discipline include a gold medal in the 1995 Pan American Games.
Though he began his MMA journey in his late 30s, Vila has been fighting since he was a young child. Born in the Villa Clara province of Cuba, he had a difficult upbringing, as the diminutive bantamweight had to fend for himself growing up.
“I lived in the rough neighborhoods. Since I was little, I’ve had to fight,” Vila tells Sherdog.com. “I was doing boxing when I was little.”
He turned to wrestling as a competitive outlet and achieved great success through the sport. When his time there came to a close, the transition to MMA was a no-brainer, even though he was older than many of his peers.
“I was [a] wrestling world champion. After that, I was, like, ‘Why not? I’ll do MMA,” says Vila, who will meet Joe Warren in Bellator’s Season 5 bantamweight tournament at Bellator 51 on Saturday in Canton, Ohio. “Here, you have to learn to kick and [to] protect the kick, [which], in wrestling, we didn’t do. We have to train more things than in wrestling. The age for me doesn’t make any difference. I’ve gotten older, but I take care of my body pretty well. I do the right things. I feel much better now than when I was world champion.”
Vila cut his teeth inside the Mixed Fighting Alliance, G-Force Fights and Palace Fighting Championship promotions and started his MMA career violently, as he achieved stoppages in eight of his first nine fights. Making his mark on the regional scene in Florida, his last five wins have come by knockout or technical knockout.
The Olympic wrestler has shown serious power in his fists to go along with his world-class wrestling.
“I can box. I can kick. I can do a flying knee. It doesn’t matter,” he says. “If the fight is going wrong and we go to wrestling, I am ready. Every fight, my game is getting better and better. That’s why I’m here now.”
Originally, Vila was willing to wait for the UFC to sign him, but after working his record to 9-0, he decided he had grown tired of the process. When Bellator called, he answered with an emphatic yes.
“I was waiting to get into the UFC, but I’m 40 years old, so I didn’t want to keep waiting for [the smaller weight classes]. Bellator gave me a chance, an opportunity, and appreciated what I did, so I went forward and signed with Bellator,” he says. “I feel really good with Bellator. If I’m the champion, I don’t have to go anywhere. Anyone that wants to fight me can fight me here in Bellator.”
The American Top Team product has set his sights on the Bellator bantamweight belt and champion Zach Makovsky, as his first bout with the fledgling company approaches. It will come against Warren, a man with whom Vila has become familiar outside of MMA. Warren has a strikingly similar list of credentials. He won the Pan American and FILA World Championships in Greco-Roman wrestling in 2008. He was slated to try out for the 2008 United States Olympic team but tested positive to THC -- a chemical found in marijuana -- and was given a two-year suspension from the sport by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
“We are friends from wrestling,” Vila says. “I don’t want to say anything bad about him. I like him. I like the way that he fights. [Fighting him] won’t be any different.”
Vila seems aware of all the competitors in the eight-man tournament, as they all pose unique threats to him. However, the Cuban remains focused on his training for Warren, as his ATT trainers in Coconut Creek, Fla., prepare him for his first fight in Bellator.
“This is the guy that’s in front of me right now,” Vila says. “Everybody is preparing themselves to fight with boxing, muay Thai and wrestling to try to win the tournament. That’s what everyone is trying to do.
“I’m going to do what I do,” he adds. “I do everything every day. I have to prepare myself well. They bring different guys to challenge [me], to wrestle, to imitate my opponent. We do a lot of good work to prepare for the fight.”